Ford Roosevelt is speaking calmly, almost jovially. But the anger and disillusionment the president and CEO of Project GRAD Los Angeles is feeling over the impending closure of the nonprofit organization seeps through, and occasionally overflows.
Project GRAD LA, which is based in the Northeast SF Valley, has helped thousands of students here qualify for and attend college over the past 21 years. However, Roosevelt has announced it would cease operations on Aug. 1, a victim of dwindling federal and state financial support in part due to the coronavirus health pandemic.
All attempts to raise the annual $2 million funding have been exhausted, he said, and there is no dramatic financial rescue on the horizon. Project GRAD LA also receives public donations, but that funding stream is not nearly enough to sustain it.
With approximately three weeks left before the organization’s Mission Hills office is permanently closed, Roosevelt said Project GRAD LA would continue working with the current group of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students it currently has “all the way to the end of July.”
“We’re going to continue very aggressively to reach out and keep talking to those  seniors we’ve been working with that have registered to go to college — whether real or virtual — we will try to hold them to that pledge,” Roosevelt said. “Or, if they decide they can’t go to that college, we’ll try to work with them on alternatives, and make sure they maximize the potential they brought to the table when they applied to and were accepted to those colleges.
“These students are no different academically than Harvard-Westlake students; they just come from different backgrounds economically, and the access is very different. We’re trying to get them past those barriers. So [they’ve been] helping them create the strength and resilience to say, ‘I’m going forward. Maybe it looks different, but I’m gonna do it.’”
But after the support from Project GRAD LA is gone, it will become more difficult.
“When I look at the disenfranchisement of what I see as sort of ‘de facto’ segregation [caused] by economic situations around the city, and you look at the disparities in school enrollment, [public school students] don’t have an equal playing field by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. And while they have no choice in having to close their doors, Roosevelt says the loss of Project GRAD LA “will impact [students] in a very sad way,” which leaves him very frustrated.
The Program’s Impact on Students
The news that Project GRAD LA is closing is upsetting former program graduates who said the program provided them opportunities they might not have received otherwise.
Lilly Calleros, who grew up in Pacoima and graduated from San Fernando High School, said she was one of the few to be in the program all of her educational life. “I started in the Project Grad’s ‘Walk For Success’ program,” which started pre-K. By the time I got to kindergarten, I could read,” Callos said.
She went on to UC Berkeley and studied public health and public policy. Calleros presently lives in Sacramento, working for the MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund). But she will be moving to Rhode Island in October for a new job with the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention.
“They impacted my life in profound ways,” Calleros said of Project GRAD LA. “They believed in us before we did. They invested in us and made sure we had a future to be proud of. I know for a fact I would not be where I am if they had not pushed us so hard, and showed us what this life could be like.”
Like Calleros, Mayra Valdez grew up in Pacoima and went to San Fernando High. She said she went there instead of the newly opened Sun Valley High school primarily for the access to Project GRAD LA. Her ‘a-ha’ moment came when she took a summer sociology course at Valley College while still in high school.
“The summer program was a big wake-up call for me, in terms of realizing that I wanted to go to college and what it took to get there,” said Mayra, 24. “It made me want to work harder — and realize I needed to work harder [to reach her goals].”
She matriculated to Cornell University to study industrial and labor relations. Mayra is currently a field manager with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and working with Rep. Gil Cisneros’ re-election campaign.
“It takes a village to raise a child. That’s very true,” said Mayra, who resides in Los Angeles. “The community we are from — there are hundreds of thousands of young people with potential in the Northeast Valley that … are not provided with the same opportunities others sometimes get. So I’m very grateful.”
Noemi Valdez, who grew up in Pacoima and also graduated from San Fernando High, went on to Harvard University to study applied mathematics.
“High school is where I was impacted the most,” said Noemi, 23, who moved to New York City last year after accepting a job with Goldman Sachs Investment Banking. “A lot of us were first generation, low-income students; our siblings hadn’t gone to college. For me, they were super helpful in guiding us through the process.”
The most important thing she learned, Valdez said, was believing that college was for her.
“Without Project GRAD I wouldn’t have gone that path. But I saw students could leave the state, go to school, graduate, and come back and inspire others. You believe you can do it because you’re seeing it happen.”
Project GRAD LA’s Legacy
Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) first began in Houston, Texas in 1993, as a program to help students in underserved communities of Houston improve their math and reading levels to qualify for college and raise scholarship money. Project GRAD organizations continue to operate in Houston and Knoxville, Tenn.
A similar model for 15 Northeast Valley schools was developed in 1999 by the late Cheryl Lynn Mabey-Ruebensaal, who became the first president and CEO, and Bill Allen (at the time the CEO of the Valley Economic Alliance). Roosevelt — who became president and CEO after Mabey-Ruebensaal passed away in 2004 — said Project GRAD LA is currently working with students from seven area schools: Arleta High, San Fernando High, Sylmar High and the four Cesar Chavez Learning Academies.
He proudly relates what he believes is Project GRAD LA’s lasting legacy.
“I would be safe in saying between 40,000 and 60,000 students were impacted by us being in the community,” Roosevelt said. “And 75-80% of that total went on to two-year and four-year colleges.
“How many of those graduated from college? Those are hard numbers to ferret out. You talk to LAUSD people and they won’t give you any hard numbers. But if we say 80% went to college, then I’d say that 60% [successfully] graduated. And that would be double the national average for similar demographics.”
What Happened to Funding
The fortunes of Project GRAD LA began to change, Roosevelt said, with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. He said Trump’s cabinet choice for Secretary of Education — Betsy DeVos — has “basically gutted” the department’s federal funding “for programs like ours.”
“We had federal funding for many years; we even had a Senate earmark for funding from a former senator of Alaska — who passed away — which, when I joined in 2004, meant we had a lot of good funding. But it slowly dwindled down, and DeVos (a better known supporter of school voucher programs and charter schools) sort of stopped the Department of Ed funding for groups like ours across the country,” Roosevelt said.
“Trump and DeVos wanted to scale back funding for what they call ‘government schools’ — that means public schools. You’re talking 700,000 students across the country who are not getting service because this thing is not getting funded by the Department of Ed.”
Roosevelt thought the program was going to receive increased state funding this year. “We had been assured by every elected representative in the Valley that I saw [last fall] — I literally went from east to west — and everyone said, ‘we are gonna back this, we want to see you guys scale up, and what we hope what we get to do is put you in the governor’s budget, which would be a more certain funding model. We want to see you go to other schools across the Valley.’ They really gave me some hope.”
But then COVID-19 hit, which drastically changed the state’s priorities. “I got a call from Sen. [Robert] Hertzberg’s office saying everything was off the table in terms of special projects,” Roosevelt said. “He was our lead sponsor on this and [his staffers] said, ‘we’re really sorry but we can’t do this.’”
When he leaves the Project GRAD LA office for a final time on Aug. 1, Roosevelt said he will first “take a deep breath” and contemplate the future. But, “I’m going to try and keep my hand in the game because there’s a profound need out here in the Northeast Valley. I can’t turn my back on what’s become a second home for me.”
“We also don’t know what’s gonna happen with LAUSD schools,” he continued. “We’ve been able to pivot and help students online. But it’s going to get harder (for them). [The pandemic] is showing us the economical and digital divide in LA county — not that we didn’t know it before, but boy is it big. I [see] a crisis in education, and economic disparity. Those were not the things we took on; what we took on was how to level the playing field for a little better access to college. And I think we did a great job of that.”